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Journey to the top of the world

Shannon Katary November 1, 2011 Travel No Comments on Journey to the top of the world

I have always wondered what it would be like to sleep above the clouds, to see Earth the way the stars do, to watch the sun rise over the vast desert landscapes of the Serengeti.

So when the timing was right, I jumped at the chance to visit Tanzania. My knowledge of Africa up until that point had come from various National Geographic specials and movies, including my favourite, “Out of Africa”.

When I signed up for an adventure tour with Explore, I knew I would meet like-minded people from around the world. What brought our eclectic group together can be described in just one word: Kilimanjaro. Our determined group had turned down more traditional vacation options for one that could damn near kill us.

Kilimanjaro or “Kili” is an inactive volcano in northeastern Tanzania, and is the highest peak in Africa at 5,895m (19,340 ft.).

As a result of Kilimanjaro’s equatorial location and high elevation, almost every type of climate is represented, including a year-round snow-topped summit.

Each year, thousands of people make the trek to the roof of Africa. Each person who attempts to climb Kili comes with his/her own goals and reasons for such a journey. For me, the climb represented a challenge of my own choosing. Life’s full of hurdles, and this was one I couldn’t wait to attempt.

There are various routes to the Kibo Base camp, the last camp before the final ascent to the summit. Our group travelled along the Rongai route, which starts from the northeast side of the mountain. It is one of the least travelled routes and gives hikers a sense of isolation with only the mountain as company. This sensation had me almost running with excitement at the beginning of the journey. At the time, it did not bother me that with each step I took up, I would later need to take a step down.

Our group was composed of 12 explorers including two Americans, five Brits, one Scot, one Kiwi, two Canadians, and one very charming Brit, who played the role of tour guide. It took only a few minutes before I felt comfortable with my travelling circus of a family.

Each hiker was responsible for packing two bags: a day pack that one must carry at all times containing essentials such as water, energy snacks, sunscreen, bug spray, camera, etc., and another pack carried by porters that contains everything else needed to complete the six-day trek.

Whenever I felt like complaining, I would think about the porters with up to 30 pounds of weight (my stuff) strapped on their backs or heads. The porters would pass us along the trail as though they were taking a casual stroll through the woods. The porters are the real deal.

Upon arriving at the first base camp, two things were absolutely clear: the orange-coloured two-man tents would become a symbol that we had survived another day and the sunscreen and bug spray applied earlier had acted like a magnet for all the dirt, sand, and sweat that accumulated since that first step up the mountain.

On Day Two we travelled the greatest elevation in one day, and we started to feel the temperature dropping. The vegetation was quite hardy and looked rough and jagged. The air was damp and one got the feeling the plants were sucking up all the moisture in the air needed to survive. Out of the corner of my eye, I could have sworn I saw a cactus reach out for my water bottle!

Travelling as a group, I discovered the truth behind the statement: “You are only as strong as your weakest link.”

When one of the members of the group found it difficult to breathe, we all had to rest. As far as I was concerned, the extra breaks were welcome. Like most people, I didn’t want to admit I needed a break. I simply tried to hold on until someone else suggested it.

On the morning of Day Three, my body accepted that 6 am was a perfectly acceptable time to get up. As I took a deep breath before heading to my least favourite place, the cardboard box of an outhouse, I found myself in awe of the view before me. About 100 yards below me and stretched as far as I could see, was a thick cover of marshmallow clouds. The clouds reminded me of my soft, warm mattress back home. I dropped the toilet paper and wet wipes and pulled out my camera. On the edge of the clouds was a sliver of the impending sunrise.

As I turned to wake up my tent mate, I was struck by another breathtaking image. Kili looked quite harmless, but I knew better. For a split second, it looked like Kili was trying to warm its statuesque body with the rising sun.

A voice called out in my general direction that the tea was ready and breakfast was getting cold. The voice broke my trance and I rushed to pack up my stuff. I attempted to consume objects that appear to be food, but taste nothing like what they are supposed to be.

Day Four was the longest day of all time. Plant life was replaced with sand and boulders.
The Saddle is a flat lengthy stretch that provides a kind of false hope that the final stretch to Kibo base camp is only metres away. The flat open path was like crossing a desert wasteland. After two hours of walking in a straight line, it became all too clear that getting to Kibo is less a physical than a mental challenge. The wind cut through my body. Walking and drinking water had become all but automatic, and I wondered if I had been walking on a treadmill all this time.

Upon arriving at Kibo, I couldn’t help but feel it was the worst place in the world. As a group, we thought warm thoughts and joked that we had freely chosen to make this journey.
As our tour guide walked us through the final climb that will start at midnight, three words were burning in my brain, “steep, steeper, and steepest.”

The worst was still ahead of us. As I contemplated paying one of the porters to carry me up the rest of the way, I looked around at everyone in the group. Behind everyone’s worn-out expression was a kind of determination that can be likened to the feeling a runner gets when the finish line and the gold medal are within reach. This leads to waves of adrenalin and shivers that consume the whole body causing a reaction that, when released, comes out as tears and laughter.

What was it like to watch the sunrise from the roof of Africa? One of my dear comrades described it as, “the view of evolution itself.”
As the sun rose, the land came alive and shadows danced around every rock and tree below. The sunlight cast an outline of Kili’s sister peak illuminating an expanse of godlike beauty. The receding glaciers formed wave-shaped patterns that provided a taste of what the ocean might look like if frozen in time.

In the end, six people in our group completed the journey to Gilman’s Point and only one of them made it to Uhuru (Freedom) Peak.

Altitude sickness is a very real possibility for anyone who takes on the challenge of climbing Kili. Knowing when you’ve gone as far as you can and making the decision to turn back before reaching the top requires a kind of wisdom. I struggled with this dilemma.

While part of our group was at the top searching for words to describe the moment, other members of the group were having a similarly euphoric experience at Kibo.

One brave gentleman was proposing to his girl. Her infectious smile gave away her answer moments before she spoke the word, “yes.” It was at this moment  I realized Kibo was not the worst place on Earth, but actually the place where one is forced to face oneself and rise to the challenge. On the way down, it was certain the mountain had changed us all.

After trading in our hiking boots for Land Rovers, we head toward the Serengeti.

About the writer: Shannon Katary is a marketing specialist who lives in Sudbury. Recently, she won the  2009 Civic Award for Volunteerism.

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